Imperfect World

In a small community on the outskirts of Cairo, a man of forty gets ready to go to work. He rises at 5.30am, kisses his sleeping wife and children, and walks from his small house to the main road. After some time he finds space on a crowded minibus that drives into the city. Even before the sun rises, the streets are completely filled, lorries mixing with vans, pedestrians, scooters, and huge buses, their wooden paneling damaged and repaired so often that it looks like painted carton. He changes minibuses twice and gets to work, just before seven-thirty. He works in the accounting department of a drinks company. For lunch he eats a handful of dried apricots, drinks some tea. He continues to work until sunset, and takes the long journey back. The snarl of traffic is so bad that he only gets home after nine. Every day, when he gets back, his wife is waiting for him, anxious and grateful to see him. He considers himself lucky in his job.

Some two thousand kilometers to the north-east, a small village in the Caucasus mountains is preparing the annual apricot harvest. They have watched their crop grow from delicate blossoms into sun-tinted orange globes. They have picked basket upon basket of the fragrant fruits, cleaned them, sorted them, passed them through the processing machine that eliminates the arduous manual work of pitting the apricots. Finally they spread the apricots to dry on long wooden trays in a special drying shed. The buyer, a Lebanese Palestinian from Istanbul, comes to look at their crop. After sharing tea, he walks with the village headman through the drying shed. The buyer explains that there is a glut of apricots this year. Prices are low. Europeans (he says "zonta orospu coçugû", the "rude folk") are very fussy and won't accept small apricots or ones that look dirty. The headman boasts how sweet the apricots are this year, and finally they agree on a price, less than last year. The village has no choice. The snows will come in a month or less.

In East Jerusalem, a young woman is washing her hands, the final part of the cleansing ceremony. She has already said goodbye to her mother and sisters. She dresses in tight blue jeans, a T-shirt saying "Enjoy Coca-Cola" in Hebrew, expensive sneakers. Her proud dark hair has been tinted to fair brown waves. She looks like any other Israeli teenager. With the stolen papers of an Israeli student and headphones blasting rock music, she takes a circuitous route through several army checkpoints, flirting with the soldiers, reservists, in fluent Hebrew, until she reaches the west of the city and a shopping area filled with people. Sits at a table outside in the warm sun, and orders a coffee, black, no sugar. Sips this slowly, tasting the roughness of the grain, savoring the way the bitterness turns to sweetness on her tongue. Gets up and walks into the café, past the security guard and metal doors. At the bar, places satchel down, smiles at bartender, opens it. Cleanly, without hesitation, going for the money. Smiling, and proud, thinking of her father and older brother as the trigger clicks and makes contact. She would have been eighteen next week. The explosion is violent in the enclosed space, a giant boot kicking flames, pulverized furniture, concrete, metal, glass, flesh and bone through the front of the café, the rubble ripping into nearby cars and bodies, windows shattering across and down the street. Cars burn, people lie or crouch, holding themselves, their bags, their children. Pieces of wall, bricks, stones and mortar crash and scatter over the scene. Black smoke licks at the corpse of a taxi, smoky yellow flames at each window, the driver still sitting, hands on the wheel. Sooty particles rain gently over the scene, white ash drifts in the wind. A lone car tire rolls and then stops, falls over. Silence. Then screams and alarms. To shoppers just a few blocks away, it sounds like a dull whump. People do not even slow down. After a while, one gets used to anything.

In a suburb of Rio De Janeiro, a mother of three works in an export processing zone. She and her hundred or so colleagues assemble jeans, bras, digital cameras, sports shoes, optical mice, and countless other consumer goods. They work in a shining white metal building centered in a spotless black tarmac lot, protected by a high fence and security guards. When they enter in the morning they change into their work uniforms, and they change back into their own clothes in the evening under the eyes of two guards. Food is brought to them during the day. The "factory" is actually an assembly center. When they assembly sports shoes, the soles come from Thailand, the uppers from India, and the inserts from the Philippines. In the export processing zone, local labor laws do not apply. Unions are banned and there is no minimum wage. A pair of sports shoes – which takes about thirty minutes to assemble from components costing around $12 – sells on the US market for over $150, more than two months' wages for the woman. She works ten hours a day, six days per week. She considers herself lucky to have a fixed job outside the bairro. Her husband cannot find work. She knows women who have no alternative than to sell their services as prostitutes.

In Lome, capital of the West African slice of a country called Togo, a girl of seventeen is walking home from school. She is a good student, brilliant even. She wants to be a journalist, she loves writing. It is six-thirty pm. It will be dark in thirty minutes. Although the school is far from her home, she is walking because she has no money for a bus or shared taxi. It is Friday, and later that evening she borrows a dress and goes to a club with two friends. One of her friends buys her a drink, and she sips her tall glass while looking at the people entering the club. A group of men come in, probably colleagues from work, and settle down. After a while, one looks at her and raises his chin in a question. She nods back, and she and her friends move to sit with the men. They chat, order beers, and food – pounded yam, rice, plantains, and spicy chicken stew. She enjoys the food. The music changes from karaoke to R&B, and she gets up to dance with her companions. The evening passes pleasantly. When the men get up to leave, she and her friends go with them. There is no negotiation. The group go to a cheap hotel, take separate rooms, she settles on the thin stained mattress. Her partner is not brutal, but takes no care of her. He uses his spittle, no condom. There is a one in twenty chance that he has AIDS, a one in two-hundred chance that she will contract the disease from this encounter. When he is done, and starts to leave, she asks him for money for a taxi. He takes a bundle from his pocket, gives her half, one thousand CFA, about $12. It is a lot, generous, but she does not say so. She asks for the rest. He gives it to her. She asks if she can call him. He shakes his head, smiles, takes his leave, and leaves the room. She washes, then leaves too.

In Kenya a young girl is getting ready to be married to a much older man. She does not know it, but she stands a fair chance of dying in childbirth and a much larger chance of contracting the fatal disease that her future husband got in Nairobi, and already passed to his first and second wives, both now dead. She does not want to be married to an older man, but she knows she has no choice. Virgins command large dowries and he has no children. She knows he is sick. If she survives him, she and her family will inherit his plot of land.

In the north-west of Angola, a young man has traveled far from his home village in the south. His family's small farm there is failing. Too little rain, too much war. He has come here to dig for diamonds. He works, together with three other men, in a series of pits that they dig into the banks of a river using tattered shovels and sharpened wooden sticks. They search for seams of the fine white sand where rough diamonds hide like crystals of sugar. His fingers are rough from the digging and panning. This evening, like most, they finish empty-handed. As he walks down to the camp with his partners, an armed group surrounds them. The youngest is a child, ten or eleven, and carries an over-sized semi-automatic rifle and bands of cartridges. The young digger starts to explain that they have nothing, but does not get to finish his sentence. His companions turn to flee, but fall, their blood running in rivulets over the orange-red earth. The bandits search the bodies, removing a knife here, a small bag there, and disappear back into the bush.

On a hillside in Afghanistan, a group of children are collecting firewood beside a poppy field when the youngest boy steps onto a bright blue plastic disc, the size of an adult hand, almost fully buried, one of four devices linked by tiny black wires. The set of mines work as designed, even after a decade in the soil, springing up to adult waist height before exploding in synchronization. The two youngest children die immediately as the explosions shred their heads and shoulders. Their older sister receives the blast on her left side. Their older brother is unhurt except for a small piece of shrapnel that penetrates his back and lung. He will die in great pain a week later from an infection, but his sister will live, leg amputated above the knee, left eye blinded. She will receive an artificial lower leg, but her face is scarred and she will never marry.

In a bedroom in Stockholm: "Yes," he says, "I like being with you, of course. But did you ever consider getting your nose done? I mean, you're a pretty girl, but there's no reason why you have to accept walking around with that thing on your face."

In Washington D.C., a young man is walking down a sunny street. He lived with his aunt, who looked after him, but she died several days before, and he is hungry, so he has gone outside looking for food. He has schizophrenia. Perhaps it's genetic, perhaps it's because his mother was addicted to heroine. In any case he is sick. Instead of enhancing and supporting reality with memory and imagination, his brain supplants it and he cannot distinguish what is real and what is not. He hears the voice of his aunt, turns and sees her in a shop window. He enters the shop, but she is gone. The shop assistant, scared to see this disheveled, unwashed, and gesticulating man, calls for help on her mobile phone. The police arrive and find him shouting at passers-by. He is asking them where his aunt went to, where can he eat, what is the way home. Their replies come back to him as animal voices, as shrieks and grunts, and this terrifies him. He wants to hear the comforting voice of his aunt, to feel her arms around him, but instead he feels the concrete pavement against his teeth, the nightsticks of the policemen on his legs and back, the blood running from his nose and mouth…

In the suburbs, somewhere to the west, a group of armed men are waiting for a signal. It comes, they enter the house from the front and back, kicking in the doors, automatic rifles held ready. A woman, cooking in the kitchen, screams and two men tackle her, pin her to the floor, hands over her mouth. In the living room, a man rises from the sofa, television remote control in his hand. He turns to face the doorway as three men enter, one on bended knee and two behind him, three muzzles aimed at his body, three fingers tight on three triggers. The hail of bullets carry him across the room, crashing into the television set, the glass shattering and mixing with his broken body, blood on the wall and carpet. Two blocks up the street, at the correct address, the intended target is giving crack cocaine to an eleven-year old girl in exchange for oral sex, unaware until the evening news he has just died in a furious gun battle with the police.

Paris, a shopping mall downtown. The man's mobile phone rings. He takes it and starts to answer it. Beside him a boy asks "hey, is that your phone?" Confused, he stops and looks. Another youth brings his fist down hard, on the man's arm, and he drops his phone. The first boy grabs the phone and runs, the second after him. The man's mind explodes with indignation and he runs after the two youths, a shout forming in his chest. The boys stop, they turn. He hits them running, stops, feels a cold pain and looks down, sees a hand, the knife it holds sliding improbably out of his chest, the blood spraying, then pouring onto his assailant, his shirt, the floor. The arm moves, the knife impales again, redundantly, his heart already broken. His shout finally bursts, but only he can hear it. The men and women in the street see a quick scuffle, one black man falls, two black boys run off. The blood takes a while to leak into the sunlit street. He dies, trembling, before someone thinks to call an ambulance.

She was once in America, in New York City. She remembers the noise of that city at night, the dark hum of traffic echoing through the buildings, punctuated by police sirens. Now she is back in her native country, trying to collect film evidence. Above her, a deep whop-whop-whop crosses from one black horizon to another, dropping an octave as it passes overhead, the Doppler effect making it sound like the siren of a massive police car. She is thankful that the battleship helicopter has not stopped near this village. She still has nightmares about the last one. She watched as the helicopter poured rockets and explosive ammunition into the village houses, their walls bursting, flames consuming them, people running, and falling. The sounds distorted by the cold dry mountain air, clicks and pops, disconnected from the scene below her. A surface to air missile, itself bought from the invading soldiers with money made by selling home-cracked petrol to other soldiers, soars up and the attack helicopter explodes, massive pieces of metal landing, burning, demolishing yet more of the ruined village. Then the next day, revenge. A tank unit, eight of the monsters coming up the pass, infantry in the rear, sent to wipe out anything and everything alive in that valley. The first tanks enter the village and anti-tank mines explode, remotely controlled, their force enough to lift the seventy-five ton beasts two or three meters into the air and back down. Metal plates shear off inside, spinning madly, slicing into bodies, arms, heads, legs, invisible carnage in a small hot metal room. There is the fut-fut of mortars, and explosions cover the scene, the infantry hiding behind the tanks but finding no shelter from the killing fragments. Three of the eight tanks lie dead, smoking, the other five seeking targets but finding none, the surviving infantry spreading out into the streets. Then the shoulder-launched rockets hit and the troops return fire, beating the rebels back, ruin by ruin. It takes hours before the officers holster their pistols, before the infantry gather their comrades, one of the tanks pulling a hay cart loaded with their dead and dying.

They live in one room, the three of them. They share a toilet in the hall with the neighbors, their kitchen consists of a small stove in the corner. He has two doctorates but cannot find work. She tells him to be confident, to be proud, but he is not. He is certain that wherever he goes in this European city, people whisper "look, a black man." He remembers the days in his old country, where he was a manager in a bank. They lived like royalty. Their house had many rooms, air-conditioned and well-furnished. Their garden had mango trees, papaya, oranges, passion fruit, guava, pomegranates, vegetables. They had servants. A gardener, a careful man, tending the fruit trees and vegetable patch with care and skill. A housekeeper, a large woman who stole less than she could, who made sure there was always cold beer in the fridge, diesel for the generator, and water in the pool. Two guards, fearsome pygmies from the interior, armed with their traditional poisoned bows and arrows as well as automatic rifles. He sometimes joked with the guards but in his heart he knew that it was neither the guns nor the poison that kept them safe from marauders, but their fetishes, kisi, the small packages around their necks that they never took off, and that he knew contained the severed hands of a young baby. His salary always vanished into the household, his idle brothers, his cousin who needed a loan, while his wife scolded him for being too generous. Then war came, the bank closed, his pygmies disappeared, his house was ransacked by soldiers, and he found himself with his wife and month-old child, in the airport, his last dollars spent on the ticket, the visa, and the airport officials. It all happened so fast, and he was now a refugee, permitted, permitted to work by the grace of God, but unable to find a job in this cold, dark, wet country. He can feel his family falling apart, his lovely wife as pale as the moon, growing distant, like the moon. Now he is alone, cut off from his brothers and uncles, his friends, his old job, everything he worked so hard to build. When she returns, one day, wearing a new dress, he does not ask where she got the money. She has a plastic bag, takes out some cans of beer. He accepts one, opens it, and returns, grateful, to the one constant luxury available to the poor of this nation, the television.

She walks quickly, nervous in the dark streets. Always the fear. When she gets to her car and takes her key to open the door, the first thing she notices is the dark hole where there should be a reflection. Then she feels the glass crunch under her feet. Someone has broken into her car. Shock hits her. She is thinking about the mess it will make, and how will she drive with glass all over the seat. It does not make sense. She never leaves anything in her car. Then a noise echoes behind her, she turns, but too slowly. Arms reach around her, someone kicks her in the ankle, takes her bag. She screams but the hand on her mouth muffles the sound. Suddenly calm, she realizes that no-one would come to help, even if they could hear her. She still has the keys in her hand. Between the knuckles, that's it. She relaxes, falls, and turns to face her assailants. A young man, she recognizes his face, he works in the shop on the square where she sometimes buys fruit, a boy beside him, no more than twelve or thirteen. Her hand comes up, the keys like claws biting into his face and eyes. He drops her, clutches his face, something dark seeping between his fingers. The younger boy does not move. He is not used to them fighting back. She opens her car door, gets in, keys into the contact, and thank god she got rid of that diesel, engine starts and she is gone.

In English Oxford, proud university town, a young man is shivering in his bedsit, cold waves sweating through him. He knows it will pass. Just a few hours. If he was busy, working, it would be easier to divert his mind, but he is at home, nothing but the telly. Just ten quid. He leaves the house, down the street, toward the town center. Under a bridge he sees some cars, parked, one has a bag in the back. Quick check over shoulder, no-one. Kicks the window, it resists. Walks quickly to the crumbling wall, dislodges a brick. Window smashes, door opens, bag in hand he runs around and behind the wall. It's a portable, fantastic. He walks, stumbles, to the estate, to number one-oh-one, the green door. Knocks, twice, door opens. "Gotta portable, mate, a Tosh, new." The Man says: "Give you two, tell you what, couple of baggies too, present from me, mate." Relief. Relief. Can't move fast enough, the point is… the point is… there! Relief. Heaven.

And then…

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